En Route to Master

By 2002, aspiring master of wine Tracy Wallace was in her early thirties, and she was unhappy with her work. She was not yet an aspiring master of wine. She was not involved in the wine industry. She was not even much of a wine drinker. Rather, she looked around, and her eye landed on the food world. She narrowed her focus to wine and noticed that the wine books on the market tended to be fat with information. "I thought, 'It looks like you can never learn it all, and with 10,000 different grape varietals, I'll never get bored. '" So she took the leap into the wine business.

Before she made her decision, her consumption had been limited to "maybe a glass of White Zinfandel, maybe two or three times a year." So, she immersed herself in study — almost literally. "I said, 'Well, I can't imagine that I won't care for it.' I had gotten $4000, and I went down to the Wine Bank and I bought $4000 worth of wine, and I just started going through it, trying different things."

Her initial judgments were of the "like this one/don't like this one" variety, but she had also enrolled in an 18-month program with the International Sommelier Guild to become a certified sommelier. By the end, she had learned "what you can appreciate in certain wines -- that a good-quality wine doesn't have to be your favorite." And before she finished the program, she had taken a job as a cashier in the La Mesa Beverages & More!, where she quickly rose to the position of wine director.

"It was basically helping people out on the floor, answering their questions about wine, and then running the tasting bar." Wallace brought a certain relish to her work, and her enthusiasm attracted the attention of Ron James, director of the editorial department at signonsandiego.com and a longtime food journalist. "I helped him with some purchases, and then he told me who he was and said, 'Tracy, I'm starting this thing called The Gourmet Club on signonsandiego...' and I said, 'And you want to know if I'll participate!'" The club, a group blog devoted to "News and Views on the Good Life," also includes contributions from James, David Nelson, and others. And so, with a post on wine-consumer research and an invitation for readers to send questions to [email protected], a wine writer was born.

The BevMo job also provided her introduction to Dr. William Byxbee, dean of San Diego State University's College of Extended Studies. "I was giving a wine tasting and he came up and gave me his card. I think his intention was to have Beverages & More! donate wines to the College's Business of Wine program." BevMo declined, but Wallace stepped into the gap. "I said, 'I have wines. What do you need?' I just pulled them from my home and supplied them to the Red, White, and Champagne class. I now supply the wines for a class called Exploring Wine, and for my own class, San Diego Wine Retailing and California Wine Careers."

The class was her own creation, the result of her observation that the program skewed heavily toward the restaurant end of the industry. She sought to provide a little balance. "Each class has four segments. We have a guest speaker, maybe two. Second, we taste six wines. It's quick, based on what consumers like -- what they might ask for in a restaurant, wine bar, or retail shop. It's also based on the hottest wine trends, so that you're at least familiar, and have a label that you recognize and can go to if someone asks for something." Wallace also gleans tips from "the wine prediction services out there. It's just like with food. Right now, kumquat is the big thing; lavender was last month. Certain types of foods are highlighted in magazines or TV shows. It's not an accident." So also with wine, she says. "We go over what's coming up, wines you should concentrate on, so that you're familiar." The third segment treats sections from the book Guerilla Retailing "and how they would relate to whatever wine career you're interested in. And then the last part of the class is designed for people to work on their main objective, what they want to accomplish in their wine career."

So far, everybody in the class is on his or her second or third career. Some want to open wine bars or wine shops. Some want to make wine. Some aren't sure what they want. "We're trying to move people past the fear -- they don't know people with jobs in the industry, and so they're, like, 'There must not be any jobs out there.' At the end of the four weeks, they have something tangible that they can do. We look at what careers fit their personalities and skill sets. We look at different employers" both in and out of the San Diego area.

By the end of 2005, Wallace was feeling the need to give her own career a boost, and she decided to leave BevMo. Through the Business of Wine program, she met one of the owners of the Wine Encounter and offered her services, "bringing in wine-related classes, 'How to Entertain'-type classes. Good things are happening. On Thirsty Thursdays, there are no seats in the house. They have a wine club now. I'm bringing in a wine book club, where you read the book and taste wines from the book. It just worked out really well."

That's for starters. "I actively pursue new things at least every week. Over the Christmas holiday, I e-mailed so many places in regards to doing things for them, writing something." The wait for replies was "torturous," but it has begun to pay off. She started writing for the Wine Bank newsletter and for the Chronicle Newspaper Syndicate, "a chain of political newspapers, mostly online."

Wallace also started a newsletter, How to Become a Wine Genius in Five Minutes or Less. "All the bits I do are based on the premise that people want just enough that they can take on one sheet of paper, and before they go into a restaurant or into a friend's house," they can learn the basics. "Consumers really want to learn about wine, because it's now not okay to not know about wine." A newsletter on Rioja tells what it is, how to pronounce it, gives a bit of history, breaks down the region, breaks down the label, names the grapes involved, drops a few characteristic adjectives, and suggests a few basic food pairings — all on one sheet of paper, all in less than five minutes. Plus, there's a map.

So far, so good, but Wallace is still pursuing, continuing her studies even as she teaches others. "If you stop and you think, you get scared. I map out all the exams." She's seeking credentials through the Society of Wine Educators to better enable her to work with the Center of Wine Origins' educational outreach about the importance of a wine's provenance. At the same time, "I've been studying for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust exams," a prerequisite for the master of wine exam. "It's more academic in scope than the master sommelier, and I'm into writing and education. There are seven or eight masters of wine here in the U.S. Maybe I'll be the first African-American."

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